Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
The BlackHawk Inn
The day after the police found the body of the "Tattooed Man," Ness was visited by the noisy and eccentric Councilman Anton Vehovec who insisted that Ness personally look into illegal gambling in Vehovec's district, which corresponded to the Fourteenth Precinct of the police department. The councilman claimed that he had repeatedly given details of the illegal gambling activities to the police, but nothing had been done about it because the police captain in the Fourteenth Precinct was corrupt. In fact, he charged that the precinct captain owned one of the gambling joints, the Blackhawk Inn.
Ness really didn't want to get in the middle of the councilman's well-publicized crusades, but Vehovec's charge against Michael Harwood, the Fourteenth Precinct captain could not be ignored. With the councilman in tow, Ness and one of his detectives, along with several newspaper reporters, drove over to the Blackhawk Inn, walked through the front door of the restaurant in the front of the building and yelled, "This is a police raid." While a number of people scrambled out the back door, Ness was able to capture about a dozen men, who were questioned about the betting slips found in the back room.
A few minutes later, a cocky young man came in, swaggered up to Ness and demanded to know what he was doing. He had been at another of his restaurants when the raid was taking place and had been warned, "something funny was going on at the Blackhawk Inn." Ness asked him who he was and he boasted that he was Eddie Harwood, whose police captain father "runs this district."
"Well, well," Ness laughed as though he were suitably impressed, "I'm Eliot Ness and I run the police department in this whole town."
Eddie Harwood, whose mood had changed dramatically when he found out Eliot Ness was leading the raid, was allowed a phone call before Ness questioned him. When he came back, he told Ness he owned the building, but rented the back room where they captured the gambling evidence to someone named Joe. Naturally, Eddie Harwood said knew nothing about any gambling. Minutes later, a man who identified himself as Joe McCarthy rushed in and told the same story as Eddie Harwood.
Ness was sure that Harwood had set this story up with McCarthy in his telephone call a few minutes earlier, so he asked Harwood and McCarthy each for their key rings. Eddie had the key to the back room on his key ring, but McCarthy didn't have a key to the room he supposedly rented.
"Are you quite sure you want to take the rap on this?" Ness asked McCarthy before he was arrested. McCarthy nodded and was driven off in the police car, leaving Eddie to explain what happened to his father. According to one witness, Captain Harwood showed up shortly after Ness and the reporters left and went into a rage at his son's stupidity.
A relative of the police captain quoted the father as saying, "You were a damn fool to go back in the Blackhawk Inn and let them get just the man they wanted, especially
when you were warned that a raid was going on. I've got a good mind to take a belt to you."
That evening Captain Michael Harwood was suspended until Ness personally completed his investigation of gambling and racketeering in Harwood's Fourteenth Precinct. "The matter has now gone far beyond the operation of a single bookmaking establishment," he told the press. "It is a question of police efficiency, discipline and honesty in the Fourteenth Precinct, and every officer in it is going to be called on for a recital of everything going on in that precinct."
A few days later, a number of people came forward to testify that Captain Harwood often visited the gambling joint in the back room of the Blackhawk Inn and had told his son to have a warning buzzer installed in the restaurant in case of a raid. Ness also uncovered a phony will of Harwood's aunt that left her entire estate of $30,000 to Captain Harwood, bypassing all of the woman's other heirs. This "inheritance" was collateral to finance loans for a large nightclub the Harwood family was constructing.
Like former-captain Louis Cadek, Harwood tried to retire before his case came to court so that he would be eligible for his pension. Using a plea of nervous exhaustion, his physician declared him "unfit for duty" and eligible for disability status, which he hoped to maintain until he could collect his pension several months later. Ness was adamant that Harwood, if convicted, not be rewarded with a pension and persuaded the police pension board to defer action on Harwood's retirement/disability scheme until the investigation was over.
The Harwood and Cadek cases reinforced Ness's dedication to weeding out the "bad apples" on the force, particularly at the captain level. He already had a long list of police officers of every rank who were suspected of illegal activity, but Ness was not going to act on mere rumor and innuendo. He was determined that each person was to be thoroughly checked out. If he was clean, his name came off the list. If he were corrupt, the investigation would yield the evidence to indict him.
The problem was one of execution. How could he, Eliot Ness, with all the administrative demands of his director position, accomplish this massive investigation? With a very few exceptions, he did not trust the men in his department enough to involve them in this undertaking. Not only that, if Ness took a few police officers away from their regular duties for a secret investigation, their effectiveness would be destroyed as word spread to "look out" for those individuals.
He needed to recruit a new team who could snoop around without attracting too much attention. It would take money he knew wasn't in his budget. Mayor Burton was sympathetic and contacted his friends in the business community who created a secret "slush fund" to pay for the investigation.
One of the most dedicated members of the secret team was paid only with the promise of an exclusive story when the results of the investigation went public. This was Ness's reporter friend Clayton Fritchey who devoted much of his free time to Ness's crusade.
Then there was Ness himself, who spent almost every evening checking out suspects on his own. Prostitutes and other petty criminals were dazzled by the celebrity who sought them out to hear their evidence.